Michael Caine distinctly remembers the morning Christopher Nolan turned up at his English country home with a screenplay for the two-time Oscar-winning actor to read.
“My instant thought was, I’m going to be in one of these wonderful little dramas, murder thrillers. I’d love that,” Caine recalled during an interview late last week.
The screenplay, of course, wasn’t for a film like Nolan’s time-bending indie “Memento” or his crime drama “Insomnia.” It was for 2005’s “Batman Begins,” which ultimately would include some of the same hallmarks as those moody, evocative thrillers — precision, tension, mystery — the signature qualities that would carry forward into “The Dark Knight” and “The Dark Knight Rises,” the last of which comes to DVD and Blu-ray this week.
“I thought to myself, I’m a bit old for Batman,” Caine said. “So, I said, ‘Who am I going to play?’ He said, ‘The butler.’ I immediately thought I’ll be spending the entire series saying, ‘Dinner is served’ and ‘Would you like a coffee?’ I thought, well, I’ll read it and turn it down.
“I said, ‘OK, I’ll call you tomorrow and let you know whether I want to do it or not,'” he continued. “And this is where I first found out Chris is the most secretive director you’ve ever come across. It’s like working for MI6.”
Nolan asked Caine to read the script right away, and the actor obliged while his wife shared a cup of tea with their unexpected guest. And Caine soon discovered that in Nolan’s universe, Alfred Pennyworth, the confidant of the DC Comics caped vigilante, was much more than hired help.
“I thought it was wonderful,” Caine said of the role. “He was the foster father of young Bruce Wayne whose parents got killed and started to bring him up. I thought this is a great director. He’s never made a big-budget movie like this and [Warner Bros. has] given him a shot. I thought, I’m going to go with him and I’ll see how we get on.”
The answer, it turned out, was quite well. These years later, Caine, who still more often refers to Alfred by his job rather than his first name, considers himself Nolan’s “biggest fan,” comparing the filmmaker to David Lean and praising his ability not just to direct but also to write screenplays and create complex, nuanced characters so often absent from big-budget studio fare.
Caine, of course, is hardly alone in that opinion. When “The Dark Knight Rises” was released in July, critics hailed the final installment in the Gotham City triptych, which sees Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne compelled to don the cowl to battle a masked menace named Bane after years in seclusion. The mission puts him in conflict with Alfred, who fears that time has dulled Wayne’s skills and that returning to the battlefield opposite such an uncompromising foe could end in his destruction.
“What happened with Alfred was in the three films — ‘Batman Begins,’ ‘The Dark Knight,’ ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ — that could have made one whole film as a relationship,” Caine said. “It had a beginning, a middle and an end. I watched [Bruce Wayne] go into being Batman, I watched him get into trouble being Batman and at the end I tried to get him out of being Batman and when he wouldn’t I walked away. It was a complete story for me.”
Writing in The Times, critic Kenneth Turan called “The Dark Knight Rises” “potent, persuasive and hypnotic,” adding of Nolan, “To have a director this gifted turning his ability and attention to such an unapologetically commercial project is beyond heartening in an age in which the promise of film as a popular art is tarnished almost beyond recognition.”
“The thing about Chris is he’s not a normal blockbuster director,” agreed Caine. “Normally when you get these blockbusters, they spend so much money on the stunts and the scenery, they haven’t got any money left over for actors so they never write any great dramatic parts in. But everything in his movie is written like a drama. You could take it out and make a movie about that, the relationship with the butler.”
Looking back, Caine said he was so pleased with his part in the final film he was “sort of delirious.” Yet, when it was over, and he and the other actors were shooting the last scene, the dreamy concluding sequence that takes place in a European cafe, “there were no tears.”
“We all knew the time had come to stop,” Caine said. “We knew we were now going to go on the downward stretch. We got better and better and better and then we thought, yeah, this is it. Forget it now. Let’s go and do something else. We were sort of sad but happy that we weren’t going to do another one and screw it up.”
The actor is also quick to dispel any ambiguity about the film’s ending. Asked about the scene in which Alfred spies Bruce Wayne and Anne Hathaway’s Selina Kyle sitting together at a neighboring table in that restaurant — a shot that suggests that Alfred’s wish for Bruce has come true, that his former charge has found a companion to bring him some measure of inner peace and happiness, enabling him to finally leave behind his self-appointed role as Gotham’s unofficial protector — Caine is quite emphatic.
“They were there,” Caine said. “They were real. There was no imagination. They were real and he was with Anne, the cat lady, and I was happy ever after for him as I told him during the picture.”
As for Caine’s future with the character, he’s keeping an open mind. Nolan and Bale have said they won’t return to Gotham, but Caine’s Alfred could potentially turn up again, should he be invited. Perhaps in that long-discussed “Justice League” movie?
“I said to Chris, ‘If they do it again and they ask me to be the Butler, I’m going to do it,'” Caine said and chuckled. “He said, ‘I want 10%.'”
— Gina McIntyre
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